The topic of death is one that usually makes us scurry away into our burrows. Who wants to think about death, loss, and the possibility of our own non-existence? In fact our society is in a kind of denial about the fact that we are all in the process of aging and dying. We like to keep the wrinkles away and to immortalize ourselves through the fame of social media. But what if we shifted the perspective just a little? What if we considered the possibility that we are constantly, moment by moment, dying and that if we do so consciously, we can awaken into a deeper embrace with life? Perhaps the march towards death is also an ever-expanding movement towards life in its fullness? The spiritual path also teaches us to die to who and what we think we are and to connect with an awareness that is beyond the movements of our mind. Having worked in medicine and now psychotherapy, this is also a part of my daily reflection and awareness. More recently this topic has been on my mind as I have reflected on my father’s illness (currently in remission) and on my regular visits to my grandparents in their retirement residence, a place where 100th birthday celebrations and deaths happen regularly.
I remember when I first started working with my spiritual teacher a number of years ago. In the beginning he was a kind of “Krishna”, embodying the sweetest of love and gentleness. But after some time, the “Shiva” aspect came out, that which destroys ego and all the false beliefs and concepts held by the mind. He tested me and challenged me in ways that went to the core of who I thought I was, uprooting everything. At one point I remember him asking me if I wanted to continue. I looked into the chasm of what my mind imagined it might be like not to exist as a person and I was filled with terror. Going through this process, I remember my teacher reminding me that there was nothing to fear, that the relinquishment of the ego is really no different than falling in love… with everything! He reminded me that if I would just stop resisting, I would see that this was actually a most joyful and wonderful process. This was the most profound of teachings. It taught me to say “Yes!” to all experience whether it was internal (sadness, boredom, anger, physical pain, restlessness etc.) or external (uncomfortable situations, difficult people, overheated places). I encourage you to try this. Try to say “Yes” to the totality of life, even the uncomfortable parts, the fearful parts, and the parts that feel shame.
In my clinical work, death anxiety often seems to come up when someone feels they have regrets about how they have lived their life. Perhaps they feel they have not spoken their truth, have not taken risks, have not played enough, have not allowed themselves to love or be loved or have been overwhelmingly passive. Perhaps they have worked too much and not spent enough time with loved ones or they have lost themselves in addictions. As the progression of time continues, the awareness that “I may come to an end never having been myself and never having fully loved or been loved” can be achingly painful. It may also serve as a wake-up call.
As one of my patients so beautifully expressed this week, “ The fear of loss is worse than loss itself”. After the unexpected and tragic death of her beloved family member, she described the realization that while she was deeply pained by the loss of her family member, “living in a cramped and fearful manner was a worse loss”. This led to an awakening moment for her and a recognition that losses will come anyway, but life is “sweeter and bigger than any of us”. She described living with more courage, honesty, joy and open-heartedness after this time. Imagine if we lived life as if it was our last day or the last day of our loved ones. What would you do differently from how you are living now?
I have seen this awakening into life in my grandparents as well, the softening and sweetness that come with deep acceptance of the processes of aging and loss of the illusion of personal independence. When one has faced the possibility of death repeatedly, each day can become a gift for which we can be grateful and each interaction a joy to relish. On a recent visit to their retirement home, I remember my grandfather (whose 90th birthday is today) saying, “Things can be so sweet it hurts”. I also noted my grandmother’s arms bedecked in two cute plastic beaded bracelets. She frequently wears one of these made by one of the fellow residents. She explained to me that her friend, who is a Holocaust survivor and quite unhappy, likes to give her these bracelets. When her friend runs out of beads to make another bracelet, my grandmother asks her to wait saying, “Dear, let me see if I have some extras upstairs”. My grandmother then goes up to her room, cuts the last bracelet, and returns with the beads to give to her friend so she can make a new one. A life filled with the richness of gratitude for these small, sweet, kind moments leaves little to regret.
I strongly encourage everyone to reflect on death and loss daily. We can never be certain of how long we or our loved ones have left to live in our physical bodies, but we can we be aware of what is happening right now in this moment…
And this one….
And this one…
As we open the door to the infinite possibilities each moment holds, we can allow fear and the limiting beliefs that tell us what we can’t do to melt. We can let go of the fear of loss and pain and recognize that they are inevitable. We can respond to life differently than we have so far. We can take risks and ‘lose’ but never lose as much as we do if we have never allowed ourself to live. We can even eventually die to the “I” we think we are and live each moment moment moment moment moment moment as if it was our first and last, a kind of spontaneous experiencing of existence.
Death and awakening are the same. So why not say “Yes” to death and awaken to life in every breath in every day and in every way.
With so much love,